John, 35, struggles with a significant mental illness and he has a physical disability. John sleeps rough and his only form of income is money earned from begging, which he does for more than six hours a day, every day. He needs to beg in order to pay for food and other essentials. John explained he doesn’t enjoy begging as it doesn’t make him feel good about himself and is made worse by the physical and verbal abuse he experiences whilst begging.
When Homeless Law spoke with people begging in Melbourne’s CBD we found: 54% had a mental illness; 73% were experiencing long-term unemployment; 23% were victims of domestic or family violence; and 90% were sleeping rough or staying in shelters, squats or rooming houses.
This research and our casework indicate that begging is a symptom of extreme disadvantage. It’s a product of homelessness, poverty and disability, including mental illness and substance dependence.
There are over 22,000 people experiencing homelessness in our state and over 1000 of these people are sleeping on the streets. Our private rental affordability and public housing availability are consistently dire. Ultimately, only a fraction of people doing it really tough turn to begging to get by.
While for some people, the risk of coercion and fines motivates behaviour change, for people living on the streets a fine or prison stint for begging might simply be another kick in the guts. The most successful programs working with people experiencing chronic homelessness, such as the Street to Home and Journey to Social Inclusion initiatives, require significant investments of time and money in order to achieve positive and sustainable change in the lives of extremely vulnerable people.
On top of this, there are risks with engaging vulnerable people in the justice system. Homeless Law already assists hundreds of clients each year struggling with fines and charges for begging and other public space offences (including being drunk in public and travelling on public transport without a ticket). Essentially, once people enter this system, it’s hard to find a way out.
If we are serious about addressing begging, we need to gather accurate evidence about who is begging and why. Our approach to begging needs to effectively link people who beg with necessary supports rather than leave them further marginalised.
Related law reform submissions and media:
- Lucy Adams considers the 'criminalisation' of homelessness, why enforcement is used to address the issue and the impacts of these approaches in 'Criminalising homelessness: Motivations, impacts and alternatives (Parity, Vol. 27, No. 9, October 2014).
- Lucy Adams discusses the enforcement based approach to begging in the City of Melbourne in Asking for change: Tackling begging with enforcement in Melbourne (Parity, Vol. 27, No. 9, October 2014).
- We commented in The Age about planned changes to treatment of begging.
- Homeless Law debated begging in the Herald Sun: ‘If we can put up with poverty, we should be able to put up with begging’ here: Herald Sun - begging.pdf